Daniel McDonnell: 'The Ireland job was meant to rehabilitate Roy Keane but fraught conclusion has destroyed future prospects'
A month after the appointment of Martin O'Neill and Roy Keane as Ireland's management team, they attended the Irish Independent Sportstar of the Year awards in Dublin.
This was a private event, in the sense that the pair were off duty. No interviews. The awards do traditionally allow high-profile figures from various sporting fields to mingle. O'Neill was the manager, but most eyes in the room were trained on Keane as the pair arrived fashionably late.
The duo were seated at a prominent table which included their new boss John Delaney, Peter Canavan, Eddie Keher and staff from the newspaper including this writer.
Throughout the meal, a steady stream of athletes and recognisable figures from other codes gravitated in the direction of Keane in the hope of grabbing a quick word, an autograph or a photo. Young members of Clare's All-Ireland hurling-winning team sheepishly approached for their turn.
The Corkman was completely comfortable with the attention, dropping the guard and sharing jokes with the company while politely suffering through any of the awkward small talk. He was interested to hear about latest comings and goings in the League of Ireland, and seemed to be on top of that brief. This Keane was a far cry from the caricature.
But the high point was undoubtedly when he was approached by Mick O'Connell, the Kerry great, and a man that O'Neill hugely admired. A long conversation between Keane and O'Connell ensued, the details of which weren't audible to the rest of the table. After the discussion finished, a query from Delaney's side of the table sought clarity on what the unlikely couple were talking about.
Keane's deadpan response was that they had actually been chatting about Saipan and - after a perfectly timed pause - added they had both agreed he was in the right. The quip was delivered with precision and all of those within earshot erupted in laughter.
With one of the most fraught periods in Ireland's sporting history reduced to a punchline, it was possible to leave that room believing that the rehabilitation of Keane was well under way. The combination with O'Neill was intriguing; the pairing was the manager's idea.
Ireland's new assistant had been out of work for almost three years. Within seven months of starting his new brief, Dermot Desmond reached out to speak with O'Neill's assistant about the vacant job at Celtic. The candidate in work is always more attractive than the out-of-work one.
So where now for Keane?
During the formative stages of the 'dream team' pairing, the Derryman was repeatedly asked if Keane would be his ideal successor. It's a long time since that scenario was credibly raised and the idea that he might return in the future to take the gig is nonsensical. There's always an element of never say never when it comes to the biggest name in Irish sport, but it really does feel like a full stop this time.
No longer would the friction with the FAI be an obstacle. It's what his influence could mean for the development of players. This week's positive tributes from squad members have been notable for the absence of reference to Keane.
Matt Doherty's blunt radio observations concentrated mainly on O'Neill's failings, but his response to a query about the role of Keane was informative in its own way.
First, there was silence. "I guess he was Martin's assistant," he replied, eventually. "It wasn't necessarily a case that he was taking session or doing shape. I guess he was just a back-up to Martin. I wouldn't say he was much of a hands-on training pitch assistant."
Doherty qualified the comments by stating that it might have been different before he was drafted into the set-up. And in the feel-good vibe around Ireland's charge towards the Euros in France, there were suggestions that Keane had mellowed. Jonathan Walters spoke openly about how he'd rebuilt his relationship with the Irish number two; they had fallen out spectacularly in a spat arising from the striker's departure from Ipswich.
But a pre-tournament outburst aimed at underperforming players showed that a certain type of fire still burned. It had never gone away, in truth. Keane's press conferences were often box-office, there were pointed barbs at Everton's medical staff amongst others, yet the withering criticism of Irish players caused a stir. One pundit who pointed that out received a lengthy text message dissecting their own career.
Perhaps the tale of Keane's stint as Irish number two is a textbook example of familiarity breeding contempt. The positive slant on his arrival was that he would inspire players, maybe even shake up some of those pampered professionals if you buy into the stereotype of the modern pro. This line of thinking has always been popular with sections of Irish society.
Without meaning to generalise, they tend to be of the older generation. Consider this conversation between two senior citizens in the changing room of a Dublin gym earlier this week. Their solution to Ireland's problems was the need for someone to come in and 'give them a kick up the a**e.'
That is the opposite of what they need. Conor Hourihane spoke this week of the younger generation's need for "guidance" to deal with the challenges of international football - a contrast from the type of matches they encounter at Championship level. Keane's sideline manner was abrasive; the Sky microphones picked it up in Aarhus on Monday.
His football philosophy has never really been established, even right back in his Sunderland days when the power of his presence galvanised an entire club, but he lost his way amid curious tales of interactions with players that were a feature of his stint at Ipswich. Players walking on eggshells.
Ultimately, his spell as Ireland number two will be remembered for the leaked WhatsApp message from Stephen Ward detailing Keane's summer falling-out with Arter and Walters. The latter had snapped at Keane because of building frustration about his negativity that was wearing the squad down. O'Neill was very much the manager, but Keane was the number two who would jab at the shoulder rather than putting the arm around it.
The Arter row was explosive, with Doherty adding a fresh perspective on this in his own inimitable manner. "I was in the hotel and heard the shouting," he told 2FM, shunning any temptation to say he had missed it all. "I was in bed and leapt up out of my bed."
Keane was infuriated with Ward and made him very much aware of that on a fraught day with Poland that accelerated the endgame. There would be no more assistant manager press conferences after WhatsAppgate, although that change of strategy was already in train before the autumn.
The 47-year-old was asked to speak at a Cork City match but turned down the requests while suggesting he would have his say in due course. He won't be shackled by the status of FAI employee when he eventually breaks his silence on these topics. There will be a number of people in the firing line whenever the day comes.
Have the outbursts lost their impact compared to the days when his every word had the potential to be devastating? That might be the legacy of his Irish stay. Ward's WhatsApp audio was damning in its own way. "Just basically Roy losing his head," was the sign-off.
The squad were weary of it all. Most of the dressing room were of an age where Keane was their childhood idol but a good number found - as the old saying goes - that you should never meet your heroes. It's known that Keane was irked by the limitations of certain panellists, especially in his old position.
He patently didn't rate Arter, and was sceptical about players with good Championship reputations such as Preston's Alan Browne. Rather than being a foil to O'Neill, it's possible that the pair had far too much in common when it came to being disillusioned by the hand they'd been dealt.
The percentage call is that Keane returns to punditry now, having assumed top dog status with ITV as the voice of cutting cynicism as they got caught up in England fever in Russia.
That pantomime grumpiness has entertaining. And that profile will mean that he will get offers to return to the game; he's not a busted docket. The caveat is that they may not be good quality ones.
O'Neill has no intention of retiring and the reports that he would bring Keane with him to another club are genuine. That said, it's believed that the 66-year-old's long-serving coach Steve Walford was not too enamoured with Keane. He left the Ireland set-up due to personal reasons.
The acceptance of another backroom role would prompt a bizarre discussion in the context of Keane and that would relate to his ambition; the one thing that has never really been doubted. He has to be aware of the power of his reputation; that energy his presence brings to a room. In the Irish dressing room, that energy became negative.
Word travels, and a gig that was supposed to be about restoring his standing may only have succeeded in denting it further. The wider world may remain captivated by Keane, remembering the great deeds and the fearsome reputation which built the aura.
His problem, however, is that we may have reached the point where today's footballers are well and truly over the obsession. The Irish squad he left behind will now become acquainted with the other major player of the Saipan equation.
Mick had the last laugh in the end.